Spring Training Preview: Why Report Early?

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As I sit here writing in disgust after my beloved Atlanta Falcons were embarrassed at home Saturday night by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, I can’t help but look forward to the start of the 2011 baseball season. It feels like yesterday that I was watching the surprising Giants-Rangers World Series match-up. However, for those of you who like to be exact, it has been 76 days since the final game of the Series on the first of November (Yes, I had to use a calendar to figure that out). Teams around the league made their respective roster moves, a New Year rolled in, and baseball’s biggest star made a strong statement about his contract situation. It won’t be long before you once again hear the two words that bring happiness and excitement into so many of our lives: Play ball.

With that being said, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here with all of this hype. Most teams have right around one month to go before Spring Training begins. From there, it’s another month and a half or so until the first regular season games. So, for now, we can only wait and anticipate. However, as Spring Training draws closer, there is one interesting question that I hadn’t really thought of before this year: Why do pitchers and catchers report early?

I’m willing to bet that not many of you have ever really given this question much thought in the past. I mean, why would you? It seems unimportant and irrelevant, which might have been true up until this past season. However, this year, nothing could be further from the truth.

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report for their first workouts anywhere between February 13th and February 18th depending on the spring schedule of their team. Position players, on the other hand, are allowed to arrive one week later. Your probably thinking: What’s the big deal with one extra week of relaxation? The extra time is not what I’m focused on. Instead, it’s the true irony of the entire situation.

How is this ironic, you ask? Well, if you’ll recall last season, there weren’t too many pitching problems in Major League Baseball. The 2010 season became widely known as “The Year of the Pitcher,” a title that was certainly warranted. It featured two perfect games (Halladay & Braden), four no-hitters (Jimenez, Halladay, Jackson, & Garza), and one should-be perfect game (Galarraga). Equally remarkable, there were a total of 25 pitchers with an ERA of 3.25 or less last year. Still not impressed? There were 15 pitchers with 200 or more strikeouts and 12 who posted at least four complete games.

In general, pitching just flat out dominated hitting from start to finish. If you’re a fan of low-scoring pitching duels, you were certainly satisfied last season. When great pitching silences opposing bats, it’s truly a wonderful thing. However, this isn’t often the case. Last season was anything but typical for MLB.

It wasn’t all that long ago that guys like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez were dominating almost every pitcher they faced and putting up some historic offensive numbers. In 2001, Bonds hit a single season record 73 home runs and Sosa hit 64. The following year, A-Rod hit 57 homers. This was really the peak of the “hitting over pitching” era, but, as this past season proved, the trend is starting to reverse.

Many will speculate that the only reason that pitching has improved recently is because of the crackdown by Major League Baseball on steroid users. While this probably accounts for some of the decline in hitting, it does not account for all of it. Others say that an increased emphasis on defense is the reason, but it’s hard to say for sure whether or not defense has actually become a higher priority. Is it possible that pitchers have just gotten better?

I think you could make the case that it is. By mixing up their pitches, changing speeds, getting ahead in the count, and knowing the strengths/weaknesses of every batter, many pitchers have found a perfect recipe for success. Not to mention, the game planning prowess of catchers often puts hitters at a disadvantage from the get-go.

Maybe youth is a factor. No longer is it the case that older pitchers in the latter half of their career are the best pitchers that the league has to offer. Guys like Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Roger Clemens are no longer the face of MLB pitching. Now, Felix Hernandez (24), David Price (25), and Tim Lincecum (26) absorb the spotlight. Don’t get me wrong, the older pitchers were still effective, but there is no replacement for young arms that can overpower hitters with speed and movement.

So, going back to my original point, is it honestly necessary for pitchers to report to Spring Training Early? I realize that pitchers and catchers need to develop that unique chemistry that is vital for a 162+ game season. I also realize that one week isn’t really that big of a deal. However, I am not writing an entire column just to point out that pitchers should have 7 extra days off. In fact, that’s not really what I’m saying at all. Instead, I’m looking at the big picture. My goal here is to point out a large pitching trend that is taking place in baseball right now by exposing an interesting irony that would otherwise go unnoticed.

If anything, shouldn’t hitters be the one’s reporting to Florida or Arizona early to gear up for the season. Only two players hit more than 40 homers in 2010, and only three finished with at least 120 RBI’s. Can you imagine this scenario a decade ago? It just wouldn’t happen. Obviously, as a hitter, timing is one of the toughest and most crucial aspects of the game. It’s not easy to master by any means, and some extra work in the spring could go a long way to bring hitters back to prominence.

So, as pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in early February, think about the big picture effects of a pitching dominant season last year. “The Year of the Pitcher” has set the tone for the future. Pitchers have sent a message, and it’s up to the game’s best hitters to respond in a big way this year. Pitching wins championships, but hitting is just as important when it’s at its best. It should be quite interesting to see how everything plays out in 2011.

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Tags: Alex Rodriguez Barry Bonds Catchers Curt Schilling David Price Defense Felix Hernandez Pitchers Randy Johnson Roger Clemens Sammy Sosa Spring Training Steroids The Year Of The Pitcher Tim Lincecum

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